Marilyn Stapleton looked outside her backyard Saturday morning and thought one of the 10 plagues of Egypt had struck down the birds in east...

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Marilyn Stapleton looked outside her backyard Saturday morning and thought one of the 10 plagues of Egypt had struck down the birds in east Moxee.

Hundreds of them lay motionless everywhere, and beyond her property lay bodies of thousands more. She spent several hours picking up the small black birds until she filled three trash bags, all the while wondering what the heck happened.

“They were just everywhere … just like they fell right out of the sky,” she said. “I was really upset because nobody said anything about this.”

As it turns out, the plague was a controlled poisoning by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the request of surrounding farmers to try and reduce the population of European Starlings in the area, estimated at 45,000. According to the USDA Web site, the birds have been a nuisance ever since the species was introduced to the U.S. in 1890, destroying fruit crops, spreading livestock disease and pushing native bird species out of their territory. Locally, a starling short-circuited equipment at a Pacific Power substation in Toppenish last fall, cutting the power for about 6,000 Lower Valley residents and businesses.

In particular, the starlings thrive in livestock areas such as DeVries Dairy, located across from Stapleton’s home along U.S. Highway 24. That’s where dairy owner Tom DeVries said the USDA launched its killing spree, although at the time he said no one thought to tell his neighbors.

“I apologize, we should have notified them,” DeVries said. “The USDA did a controlled kill, but a lot of the birds fly in and fly out and they didn’t know where some of them would end up.

“We didn’t mean to upset anyone, just trying to control the population out here.”

Art McEwen, an environmental-health specialist with the Yakima Health District, said the USDA did let Yakima County know about the starling poisoning in the area, but was under the impression county officials were going to warn neighbors. McEwen said the USDA conducts poisonings in various locations around the county each spring.

“I think this was the second one so far, and that other poisoning took place in the Lower Valley,” he said. “I thought they had posted signs around the actual site to let people know what was going to happen, but I’m not sure about that.”

Although McEwen said the poison the USDA uses is not harmful to dogs or cats who eat the birds, neighbors said that information would have been of more use Saturday morning. Some, like Stapleton, kept their dogs inside the house and went so far as to burn the bodies of the birds for fear that the poison would kill them too.

“I’ve got sheep and chicken and cats and dogs, and I’m thinking if this kills birds, then what else does it kill?” Laurie Cantrell said. “The birds are still dropping dead in my yard and I have to spend all day picking them up.

“This pretty much stinks.”

Stapleton said DeVries apologized to her when she called him on the phone to complain and even sent over a few of his workers to finish picking up the dead starlings on her property. She said even though she doesn’t much care for the birds, she hopes someone can notify her if it happens again.

“That’s the first time that they’ve ever done it around here,” she said. “The whole problem is if they are going to do something like that, they should be advising the people. Because it was a real shock to get up to all these dead birds this morning and not know.”